Is sprawl a Republican issue?

By STATE REP. DAVID J. STEIL, a member of REP’s Pennsylvania Chapter

A HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Representative Steil wrote this op-ed specifically for publication in The Green Elephant’s Gazette, the newsletter of Pennsylvania REP, in the fall of 1999.

Quick. Mention “sprawl” and what is the first thing that comes to mind? Better still, mention the word “environment” and what pops to mind? Al Gore hugging a tree, surrounded by a shouting group of “save the world” supporters . . . all far-left, radical Democrats, of course. Well, guess what.

Sprawl, along with the environment, is a statewide Republican issue.

Despite the fact that Governor Ridge’s 21st Century Environmental Commission identified sprawl as the number one issue facing Pennsylvania, now and in the next century, many Republicans find it difficult to accept this as our issue. It is even more difficult for Republicans in the more rural areas of the state to accept sprawl as an issue of Republican principal. That sprawl is becoming a statewide issue is much easier to define and accept than defining and accepting it as a Republican issue.

Following World War II, with the advent of durable and reliable automobiles and a highway system on which they traveled, we began to see the first applications of the principals of single use zoning, which were first developed in the 1920’s. Single use zoning is a concept that is practiced by nearly every municipality and township in Pennsylvania, if, and that’s a big if, the municipality has adopted regulations governing planning and zoning to define how land will be developed.

Since people could now live at some distance from their place of employment, there was an increasing demand for residential development. Gradually these developments employed the purest form of single use zoning. As ultimately practiced by most municipalities, zones were established for each individual housing type, such as single-family, multi-family or apartment. Ultimately, even those broad classes were broken into other sub-groups, such as large, medium and small lot single-family, while multiple-family units were broken into duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and condominium projects. Of course, commercial and industrial uses were entirely apart from residential uses.

In its extreme form, this led us to essentially deny the right to build communities, even if a developer so chose. Our small towns and boroughs grew up in the 1800’s and early 1900’s under a concept called mixed-use zoning, where a variety of uses are accommodated in the same area. The mere denial of mixed-use zoning as an option clearly violates the basic Republican principal of individual responsibility and freedom of action. Simply stated, those who might wish to live in a communal setting were denied that option because government determined that people should only live in areas of common type and use.

As a further result of single-use zoning, land development patterns occurred in what we commonly call sprawl today. Since all land in those communities that chose to zone was divided into particular residential types, the land was developed only when and if the property owner chose to sell the land to someone who would then develop it. Since people do not make those decisions in common, it meant that pockets of development began to dot the countryside. The only way to connect these dots was with more roads, which meant more cars. Essentially, every service needed to support these pockets of development required an automobile trip from residence to the place of service. New development doesn’t just require roads, it also requires facilities to handle potable water, sanitary sewers, stormwater drainage, police services and, yes, schools. This infrastructure came at a very high price, especially when it had to connect these random pockets of development.

A deeper and more insidious problem began to emerge. Bonds of familiarity, friendship and community purpose began to break down. People found it less necessary to join their neighbors in community action and support, because they really didn’t have to worry about anything beyond a narrow enclave within which they lived. It became easier to forget about the problems of people, especially as they related to the community. Instead of one-on-one conversation, we began to rely on television, newspapers, magazines, the telephone and now the Internet for communications.

This leads to a second violation of basic Republican principal. We have always believed that government should not do for individuals what individuals and groups of individuals can do for themselves. We have believed that churches, institutions, fraternal organizations and others can provide for many of the socio-economic needs of our communities without government. However, in a society where people do not feel bonds with their community, they must look to government since they have no connections with these other groups. Republicanism, in my estimation, has always been based upon people helping people, with government assistance when necessary. We expect that people will take the initiative to resolve the conflicts in their life, although we respect that we will need the support of our friends, churches and communities in accomplishing these goals.

Finally, it is becoming very clear that the issue of sprawl is a Republican issue because it is also a statewide issue. If our party wants to be a statewide party, it has to address what is perceived to be a statewide issue. Even those communities that do not currently provide planning and zoning regulations must accept the fact that future growth, which many of
them desire, could force such a regulation upon them. For those municipalities currently experiencing explosive growth, the problems of sprawl are well known. It is also clear that these are largely Republican communities that have brought Republican majorities to entirely new voting districts. If we do not address this issue, then we will be turning our backs on those majorities and we can expect that they will find other candidates to support. It is also clear that the cost of infrastructure as a result of sprawl significantly impacts the costs of doing business. Our commercial and industrial leaders are recognizing that fact. They know that they have an ability to directly manage the costs of production, materials and labor. They also know that they cannot directly impact the costs of infrastructure which they pay through the real estate taxes imposed upon their business. In the final analysis, their decision to do business in Pennsylvania must include that fact.

As a party, we Republicans will never have a better opportunity to provide leadership in an area not normally believed to be “our issue.” It is now that we can bring new thinking to our communities. If we can find the will and the support for House Bills 13, 14 and 15 and Senate Bill 300, we will find solutions and employ options while building stronger communities. This can be accomplished while carefully preserving the rights of private property owners. Such ownership is one of the fundamental rights in a democracy and too often government has made itself the adversary rather than the partner of property owners. Respecting the rights of property owners, the freedom of individuals to live where they choose and the ability of citizens to build stronger communities is what will lead Republicans to continued majorities in the 21st Century.


ORIGINAL 1999 CREDIT: Pennsylvania State Representative and REP member David Steil is president and majority stockholder of M-TEC. He is a former township supervisor in one of the most sprawl-affected areas of Pennsylvania. Since 1992, he has represented the 31st District in the House of Representatives.

Here are two more excellent articles on the issue of sprawl, written by Michael E. Lewyn, another REP member:

Why sprawl is a conservative issue, Part 1   |    Why sprawl is a conservative issue, Part 2